Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tinkering with Geoengineering: more consideration as scientists seek answers to climate change

Geoengineering is in the news again. USA Today ran an article that summarized some of the latest proposed geoengineering concepts. Each appears to have its pros and cons - like the side effects of any medication - but with scientists continuing to document the impact of CO2 emissions and the overall climate change effect it produces, geoengineering is getting more and more attention as a concept that must be seriously considered now rather than later.

RTSea Blog ran two posts on the subject in 2009, and the concerns over the side effects of geoengineering expressed then by scientists still exist today.
Says Scott Barrett, environmental economist, "We're moving into a different kind of world. Better we turn to asking if 'geoengineering' could work, than waiting until it becomes a necessity."

Geoengineering is the process where global steps are taken to counter the effects of global warming, as opposed to addressing the source of the problem - like treating a disease symptomatically. It has been said that geoengineering is not the "silver bullet" solution but may have to be considered along with other measures aimed at the root of our global warming problem, that of excessive CO2 emissions (which, ironically, is a geoengineering process unto itself).

Many of the proposals seem petty grandiose or something right out of a science fiction novel but, in most cases, the technology is there; it will need international cooperation to ramp it up to a global scale. Here are a few of the latest proposed techniques listed by USA Today:

Ocean fertilization. Dumping iron filings into the ocean to spur phytoplankton blooms is the saltwater version of forestation. The increased mass of the plankton's cells would swell with carbon pulled from the air. On the downside, it may kill fish, belch out other greenhouse gases such as methane, and hasn't worked very well in small trials. [Also mentioned in my prior posts.]

Forestation. Intense planting of trees and reclaiming deserts with hardier plants is one of the ideas endorsed at the recent Cancun, Mexico, climate meeting, where representatives of 192 nations made some progress on an international climate agreement. More fantastic versions, endorsed by Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, would rely on genetic engineering to produce trees that act as natural carbon scrubbers, their trunks swollen with carbon pulled from the air.

Cloud engineering. Painting rooftops white, genetically engineering crops to have shinier surfaces, and floating blocks of white Styrofoam in the oceans are all proposals to mimic the effects of clouds, whose white surfaces reflect sunlight. Pumping sea salt into the sky from thousands of "spray ships" could increase clouds themselves. Cost-effectiveness aside, such cloud-seeding might end up dumping rain on the ocean or already soggy regions, instead of where it's needed.

Pinatubo a-go-go. As mentioned above, sulfur aerosols could be fired into the sky by cannons, released by balloons or dropped from planes. [Also mentioned in my prior posts]

Space mirrors. Hundreds of thousands of thin reflective yard-long disks fired into a gravitational balance point between the sun and Earth could dim sunlight. Cost aside, rocket failures or collisions might lead to a tremendous orbital debris cloud circling the Earth. And a recent Geophysical Research Letters space tourism report suggests the rocket fuel burned to launch the needed number of shades would dump enough black soot — which absorbs sunlight and heats the atmosphere — to increase average global temperatures about 1.4 degrees.

Just as CO2 emissions and rising overall world temperatures disrupt currents, winds and other weather patterns, thereby producing more storms, droughts, and even cold spells in some parts of the world; counteracting global warming through geoengineering can do the same. In fact, it can have political or national security implications: what if one nation has the means to manipulate geoengineering so that it could produce droughts or alter storm tracks in another part of the world? Now there's something that seems right out of a DC/Marvel comic book.

While "most of the technologies are not yet proven and are at the theoretical or research phase," according to an August Congressional Research Service report, geoengineering is slowly gaining acceptance as a viable approach worth pursuing. "I think it is settled that some climate engineering research will go forward," says Science magazine reporter Eli Kintisch. "We haven't seen it enter the national debate yet. Hard to know what will happen when it does. That may be the biggest question."

Read the article in USA Today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The 800-Pound Gorilla: population growth will make the world unrecognizable says scientist

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is getting restless again. I've used that metaphor in the past to describe the growing human population that is driving so much of our consume-not conserve behavior. At the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the issue of population growth, and what toll that will take on our natural resources, was raised again by Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund.

The United Nations has predicted that the global population will reach 7 billion this year. It is also predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050. What we will have to do to feed us all in 40 years is nothing short of staggering. According to Clay,
"We will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000."

Most of the population growth will take place in developing countries, particularly Africa and South Asia. Not only will the shear number of people have a detrimental effect on our natural resources, but so will a disproportionately higher rate of consumption.

As populations increase, there is also an increase or improvement in the economic status of a portion of that population (globally, incomes are expected to triple, while developing nations will see a five-fold increase). An improvement in lifestyle also means an increase in food consumption.

Urging scientists and governments to begin making changes in food production now, Clay told the Associated Foreign Press (AFP), "More people, more money, more consumption, but the same planet."

Meat consumption is expected to increase, but the solution is more complex than just raising more cattle or chickens. It takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. And to produce that additional seven pounds of grain it takes more land, water, fertilizers, herbicides, and so on. Multiply that by the millions of pounds of meat that will be needed by 2050, and you can begin to see the scope of the problem.

Clay warned that if current trends continue,
"By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable."

Family planning will begin to become more and more of a reality. Hopefully, society will see the importance of controlling the population without resorting to draconian steps like the punitive steps in China's second-child policy. If the people realize and react to the growing impact of population growth on the environment and food prices before governments do, then perhaps there lies our best chance at keeping the 800-pound gorilla at bay.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Heart of Green Awards: celebrities who actually made a difference are recognized

The environmental website, The Daily Green, is preparing for a reader's vote to select the "Greenest Celebrities of the Year." The nominated candidates for the website's Heart of Green Award are Kevin Costner, Michelle Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jay Leno (there's room for your favorite write-in candidate, too).

Now to some diehard conservationists, this might seem like pretty inconsequential fluff; just a hey-atta-boy for some celebrity who wants to look like a moral, upstanding treehugger. But there's a lot more to it than that. Sure, there are some tag-along celebrities who just want to be perceived as environmentally noble, but not the folks listed here. These are people who put in the time and effort, know what they are talking about, and are prepared to either leverage their celebrity status or financial resources to get things accomplished.

Here are the green bios listed in The Daily Green for Kevin Costner, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Sigourney Weaver. All three have been involved in ocean and other conservation issues. I'd be hard pressed to make a choice between these three, let alone all six of the nominees.

Kevin Costner
While many celebs spoke out against the Gulf oil spill, Kevin Costner took direct action through an innovative, science-based startup he co-founded, Ocean Therapy Solutions. Costner had spent the last 15 years supporting research on centrifuge systems to more safely and effectively remove oil from water. Tests have been promising, and BP ordered 32 of the devices for the Gulf. Costner also testified before Congress, not just as a concerned actor, but as an expert in marine cleanups.

Leonardo DiCaprio
Long one of the most committed environmentalists in Hollywood, superstar actor Leonardo DiCaprio made waves in 2010, the Year of the Tiger, by teaming up with the World Wildlife Fund on the Save Tigers Now campaign. Working on financial, political and educational fronts, the project hopes to double the number of tigers in the wild, to 6,400, by 2022, the next time the iconic animal comes around the Chinese zodiac.

Sigourney Weaver
A lifetime lover of the sea, actress Sigourney Weaver has become a spokesperson for marine conservation and for NRDC, particularly on the little-known yet critically important issue of ocean acidification. Weaver has also followed up her role in the smash hit Avatar by joining James Cameron in the fight for justice for the Earth's indigenous peoples, and to protect the last remaining untouched forests. The Planet Earth series Weaver narrates brings critical environmental issues into an unprecedented number of homes.

Anyone who is committed to preserving this planet has a role to play, whether a scientist, a politician, a celebrity, or just an everyday Joe. We preserve our natural resources by doing the best we can with our own personal resources - and in so doing, we all make a difference. We all become stars in our own right.

Read about all of the nominees and vote for your favorite at The Daily Green.

Monday, February 21, 2011

South Carolina Wetlands: preservation efforts bring back the long lost whooping crane

Amidst so many important issues and threats against the planet's natural resources, every now and again one finds a success story. Here's one that shows that it's not too late if people, governments, and corporations recognize the importance of the ecology that surrounds them and work together.

Coastal wetlands are home and haven for a variety of plants and animals. Wetlands are a unique ecosystem, often a bridge between freshwater and marine environments. But they have been receding due to commercial development and pollution.

In the southeastern United States, South Carolina has many rivers that work their way to the coast, feeding an expansive network of wetlands. However, to meet the needs of a growing
population, residential and commercial development has severely impacted these wetlands, particularly over the past 50 years. The wetlands serve as a nesting habitat for several species of birds and one bird in particular, the whooping crane, had long ago left an area known as the ACE Basin.

The ACE Basin is a wetland where three rivers - the Ashepoo, Combahee, and the South Edisto - empty out to sea south of the city of Charleston. Due to the combined efforts of local landowners, government officials, and other conservation-minded citizens, over a 250,000 wetland acres have now been preserved.

With that, the five-foot tall majestic whooping crane has returned, with two mating pairs regularly wintering in the ACE Basin. The whooping crane had been considered gone from South Carolina wetlands since before the Civil War, so to see it return now is clear evidence that the efforts of the South Carolinians is working.

Congratulations to the people of South Carolina who understand the importance of wetlands to the overall health of their state's ecology.The return of the whooping crane is something to crow - or whoop - about.

Read about the South Carolina wetlands in The Post and Courier.

Paid Volunteers: combining donations with field work to support conservation research

Supporting conservation can take many forms. You can simply contribute what you can afford to the organization of your choice. Or it can be in the form of actions in your personal life: paper or cloth shopping bags over plastic, replacing standard light bulbs with fluorescent, etc. Or it can be through volunteering at a local zoo, aquarium, or animal rescue center.

Another way that is being promoted more and more by various conservation and research organizations is paid volunteering in the field. There are many organizations involved in research which benefit from the assistance of paid volunteers performing important data collecting and other duties under the supervision of trained scientists and researchers. The organization gains both financial support and additional needed manpower, while the volunteer gets a taste firsthand of what is involved in the actual research that produces the data upon which conservation policy and regulatory decisions are made.

Conservation research groups like the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Save Our Seas Foundation, and others have welcomed the assistance from volunteers in varying degrees on projects ranging from turtle tagging to tagged shark observations to animal rescue. Being a paid volunteer can cost as much as a tropical dive vacation and travel to and from the site is typically not included. The volunteer will find that he or she is usually trading in some resort luxuries for hard work, but the satisfaction of being directly involved in a project that could have an impact on the future of a species more than makes up for it.

So where do you find the organizations who have such programs available? Well, you can search on your own or there has been enough interest in paid volunteering that companies have sprung up who specialize in offering a menu of projects to choose from. One such company is U.K.-based, in essence, is a travel agency dedicated to conservation activities, from studying minke whales in Canada, to tracking jaguars in Brazil, to helping villagers in Thailand understand the importance of preserving their sea turtles, mangrove marshlands, and coral reefs.

Times are hard economically for research groups and conservation non-profits, and it won't be getting much easier any time soon. The same could be said for all of us as individuals. So if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to afford a little vacation time in a faraway place and have a keen interest in seeing the conservation movement flourish, paid volunteering might just be a great way to roll up your sleeves and put your money where your mouth is.

Gulf Oil Legacy: not gone by 2012 according to scientist

In early February, the U.S. appointed head of the oil compensation fund, set up at the conclusion of the BP Gulf oil spill, declared that the Gulf of Mexico would be almost back to normal by 2012. Administrator Kenneth Feinberg said this was based on research he had commissioned.

Dr. Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia has a simple retort: he's wrong. Dead wrong.

Having traveled over 2,600 square miles using submersibles and taking over 250 seafloor core samples over five expeditions from prior to the April 20 spill to just this past December, what Joye has seen tells her that the oil is still there in great abundance and that the impact will be present for many years to come.

Making a presentation at a science conference in Washington D.C., Joye showed slides and video of dead sealife and oil residue that has not been consumed by the microbes that have been touted as the great Pac Man-like oil gobblers that would clean up the Gulf.

"There's some sort of a bottleneck we have yet to identify for why this stuff doesn't seem to be degrading," Joye told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington.

"I've been to the bottom. I've seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It's not going to be fine by 2012," Joye told The Associated Press. "You see what the bottom looks like, you have a different opinion."

Much of Joye's work and that of several colleagues has been slow to surface to the attention of decision-makers and scientific journals because of a greater interest in reports of oil disappearing in the Gulf. Joye and her colleagues are the party spoilers.

But the hard truth is that, while it may be true that a considerable amount of the oil that flowed from the Deepwater Horizon disaster may be gone, there was such an enormous amount of oil in total, what remained would have a horrendous impact on the Gulf for many years to come.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sides with Joye in her assessment and disagrees with Feinberg.

Lubchenco said,
"Even though the oil degraded relatively rapidly and is now mostly but not all gone, damage done to a variety of species may not become obvious for years to come."

Joye sighted in her report not only residual oil and various dead sealife like crabs and brittle stars, but a soot-like residue from oil burning and also methane. Methane gas was released during the course of the spill which, according to a study just published in Nature Geoscience by Joye and three of her colleagues, equaled another 1.5 million to 3 million barrels of oil.

While there are several Gulf restoration projects beginning - some government-mandated, others part of out-of-court settlements - it would be prudent to turn to hard realists like Dr. Samantha Joye who can deliver the facts while governments and oil companies seek to sweep this all under an oceanic rug

Read more from AO via U.K.'s

University of Georgia/Associated Press photos.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Florida's Shark Congregation: sharks swarm in the shallows prior to northern migration

Each year, around this time, blacktip and spinner sharks congregate off the southeast coast of Florida as a prelude to a northerly migration. And this year was no exception. Sharks numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, were observed off Palm Beach, getting within 100 yards of shore.

In this area, you have a white sandy bottom that is shallow and extends quite a ways out to sea. Against this bright backdrop, the sharks, with their darker coloration on the tops of their bodies, stand out quite clearly, as seen by this helicopter video taken for Florida's Sun-Sentinel.

The sharks will move as far north as Chesapeake Bay, feeding on migrating schools of baitfish like mullet. Scientists who study animal migrations are always curious as to what might be the motivating factor for a particular migration. Is it due to a change in climate or water temperature? Or to find suitable mating grounds? Or is it following a particular food source. That appears to be the case with these sharks off of Florida - simply gravitating where the hunting is good.

Blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus) and spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna) are not considered particularly dangerous sharks. However, in Florida they have been implicated in as many as one-third of Florida's total number of attacks. But with these attacks, poor visibility and mistaken identity are the root causes.

"These are not really aggressive species," said Brent Winner of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But if the water is murky and you see hundreds of sharks, you probably should stay out of the water. Even though they don't eat people, the chance of being bitten is there."

First, you need a hungry shark, one who is on the hunt. This is a critical first step as these sharks do not bite just for the fun of it. Then you add in reduced visibility in the shallows as that white sand I mentioned earlier gets stirred up in the surf. The shark is looking for a small fish, and the flash of white from a human hand or foot - particularly if aided with gold or silver jewelry which can look like sunlight dancing on fish scales - can cause the shark to make a quick dash and grab. Of course, as soon as it realizes its prey does not taste like a fish, it quickly moves on its way. But the result is there's now a new statistic for the shark-human interaction record books.

When I see footage of these shark migrations, it don't view it with any sense of alarm, regardless of how the media portrays it. It's good to see these congregations and the only fear should not be directed at the sharks but at any unscrupulous fisherman who views it as an easy catch.

Read about the migration in the

Ocean Rainfall & Acidification: scientists study the process at sea

Acidification is one of the great challenges facing our oceans. It is the process whereby the ocean water's pH level, it's level of acidity, increases to a point that impacts various marine species, particularly those who build shells. Acidification disrupts the calcium carbonate building process for various types of shellfish, shells, and corals.

What is driving acidification is airborne pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 enters the atmosphere and then, transported by winds, is deposited at sea. Scientists are trying to learn more about this transportation process - in essence, the A-to-B process, from your car's tailpipe or energy factory to the ocean.

Scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science are pouring over the results of a two-year study wherein they observed the process of rainfall at sea to determine how much pollution is entering the ocean by this method. Rainfall is considered one of the primary means of transporting airborne pollutants to sea. But to what degree? How much returns to earth; how much remains airborne; and where is it falling?

Rainfall collectors on land can provide one sort of perspective, but we've all seen how weather patterns can change when they move from land to sea or vice versa. So, the scientists set up collectors at sea off the coast of Bermuda and the nearby Sargasso Sea. They wanted to measure a compound commonly found in the atmosphere: Beryllium-7. Comparing those measurements with Beryllium levels in the atmosphere, the scientists could make estimates as to the amount of rainfall in remote ocean areas. They hope that their methods can be utilized on a global level.

"Over vast areas of the oceans the only rainfall data available are those made by using conventional rain collectors placed on islands," said Joseph Prospero, professor of marine and atmospheric chemistry at the UM Rosenstiel School. "However, rainfall on the island is not necessarily representative of that which falls in the surrounding ocean.

The effects of acidification have been documented and that has lead to it being named one of the major threats to the oceans and all that live within. But to better understand how to deal with it, scientists continue to analyze and understand the process. It is often through that work from which solutions are derived.

Read more in Science Daily.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

California's Shark Fin Prohibition: AB 376 introduced to protect sharks

The momentum continues to build in opposition to shark finning with the introduction of Assembly Bill 376 in California. This piece of legislation is similar to the legislation passed in Hawaii, banning the possession, sale, distribution, and use of shark fins. This fills the gap left in the federal laws that prohibit shark finning within U.S. waters, but allow sale and distribution.

AB 376 was introduced by Assemblymen Paul Fong and Jared Huffman. I had the opportunity to come to know Assemblyman Huffman when my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, played in the state capitol in 2010. At the time, Huffman and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher were keenly interested in shark conservation. I'm glad to see the interest did not wane since then.

I have included a link to Pete Thomas' excellent post on the subject of AB 376. Of particular interest to me were two of the responses to his post. Both brought up the issue of Asian culture and seafood, which I discussed in a recent post. One comment, apparently from an Asian reader, brought up the cultural issue by questioning the right of non-Asians to tell Asians what to do regarding shark consumption - a perfect example of the cultural defensiveness that can crop up regarding this issue.

The other comment appeared to dismiss the Asian argument to use shark fins based on the fact that shark fin soup was a once delicacy reserved for royalty, but no longer. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that the demand for shark fin soup and other shark products has never been greater because what was once a luxury item for royalty is now consumed by Asia's growing middle-class. Shark fin soup can readily be found in cans or in the freezer section of many Asian markets, not just royal palaces.

As AB 376 moves forward, whatever resistance it experiences will be fronted by economic arguments but the independence or defiance of a culture steeped in a broad use of all types of seafood will, for some, be bubbling just below the surface.

Read Pete Thomas' post in Outdoors, action and adventure.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

India's Whale Sharks: a migrating population may be unique to India

For many years, marine scientists have studied the migration patterns of marine animals, trying to better understand the animal's behavior by unlocking the secrets as to why these long-range movement patterns exist. Spawning grounds, food opportunities, seasonal temperature changes - all have entered into the mix, depending on the species or the location.

In the South Pacific and Indian Ocean Ocean, there was a long held belief that a population of whale sharks migrated from Australia to waters off India's Gujarat coast. In the winter months, whale sharks would disappear from Australian waters and reappear in Gujarat, about 300 to 500 strong. The theory was that the sharks were migrating to warmer waters.

But a new study by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), wherein genetic samples from Australian and Indian whale sharks, along with identifying photographs, were taken and compared, it appears that the two regions may, in fact harbor two distinct populations. According to Arun Kaul, WTI senior director, there were no corresponding DNA indicators between any of the samples taken.

“The samples collected so far have not found a match anywhere in the world, which means they are unique,” Kaul said.

Whale sharks, like many other sharks, can also be photographically identified because their white-spotted markings - along with any other distinctive scars or deformities - act like a fingerprint. The WTI study did not find photographs that showed a whale shark in both Australian and Indian locales.

WTI pointed out that this was a preliminary study and that more work needed to be done to further identify migration routes for these sharks (after all, the Australian whale sharks were going somewhere during the winter months; just, apparently not to India) and to determine whether any cross-breeding is taking place.

I recall when I first became interested in the white sharks at Isla Guadalupe and learned of the "White Shark Cafe" where it appeared that both sharks populations from Isla Guadalupe and the Farallon Islands were both migrating to. It was a tantalizing thought that these two distinct populations were meeting in the mid-Pacific to cross-breed and maintain a healthy gene pool. However, to date, all DNA samples taken have not yet shown any connection between the two groups. It's also not completely clear as to whether all of the sharks migrate or whether there are some who, for whatever reason, stay back. Some divers, who dive Guadalupe in the summer months before the usual return fall migration of the white sharks, have reported seeing a shark or two at the edge of visibility, hanging out in deep water.

Could this be happening in Gujarat? The seabeds in Gujarat are rich in plankton - a primary whale shark food source - and sea grass which feeds many small fish that end up as whale shark prey. But the whale sharks don't stay all year round, so if not Australia, then where are they going?

A coalition of research groups including WTI, Wildlife Institute of India, Space Applications Centre, National Institute of Oceanography, Australian Institute of Marine Science, University of Illinois and others is being formed to carry on a more intensive study. The prospect of a unique population of whale sharks at Gujaret is not only of scientific interest, it is also a source of national pride. In 2000, as many as 500 whale sharks were landed off Gujaret, but in 2001 whale shark hunting was banned and hunters became protectors, viewing the whale sharks as a valuable natural resource. Fishermen free whale sharks caught in their nets and discussion are underway regarding the economics of ecotourism, as several agencies step up an awareness campaign.

“Perhaps we have discovered a population that could be endemic to Indian territorial waters,” said Satish Trivedi, senior official, community development, Tata Chemicals, Ltd (who funds a "Save the Whale Shark" campaign in India), commenting that such a discovery is significant for India.

Read about Gujarat whale sharks in

Japan's Seafood Heritage: careful conservation diplomacy to challenge centuries-old practices

The nation of Japan's cultural heritage behind seafood and its reliance on this natural resource to feed its people runs very, very deep. Combine that with the nationalistic pride that exists amongst the government and industrial institutions, along with the attitudes of a large segment of the population who know what it's like to be an island nation that has had to fend for itself for centuries, and it makes it easier to understand their intransigence when outside nations, particularly from the west, demand they change their ways for the sake of conservation of particular marine species.

Western civilization actually has a somewhat limited seafood menu pallet compared to Japan. What you'll find on the menu in a seafood restaurant on San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf pales in comparison to what you'll find in a Japanese fish market. Historically, for Japan, marine species = seafood = survival. So, when strident conservation groups come in wagging a finger and demanding a complete cessation without any quid pro quo, based on a perceived higher moral authority on conservation grounds, the recalcitrance or outright defiance by the Japanese people should not necessarily come as any surprise.

An article that ran this past Friday in the Guardian, illustrated the industrial effectiveness of the harbor city of Kesennuma, Japan. In Kesennuma, shark fishing is a major activity, along with fishing for swordfish and tuna. The article highlighted not only the active commercial fishing taking place in this port city but also the protective attitude of the people in keeping their activities off the radar of prying western eyes.

Two leading pro-shark blogs, SharkDivers' and Da Shark, picked up on the story and wrote insightful posts, both noting the importance of viewing the situation from the other person's perspective, in this case, the Japanese. This is the essence of diplomacy: you can only attain your goals if you can show the other side that it is also in their best interests. And when the emotional furor of a conservation issue finally elevates itself to the international arena, then the game subtly shifts from conservation of a species (which still remains an underlying cause) to economic and cultural sustainability. This occurs whether it's a small Pacific island community or an industrial nation like Japan.

When I speak to U.S. audiences on shark conservation, I find that for the most part, the people I am speaking to have not had any shark products, except maybe for an occasional shark steak. They see the pictures of shark finning and are appalled, particularly when the fishermen dump the shark carcass overboard in favor of retaining only the fins. The audience's dander is now definitely up.

Then I ask them, "Have you ever toured a cattle processing plant? Or how about a poultry farm?" If they did, it wouldn't surprise me that it produces a few new vegetarians. Then, to put the cultural aspect in some sort of perspective, I ask them what their reaction would be if Mrs. Paul's brand of fish sticks were to change from cod to haddock. Typically, the reaction is one of "no big deal." Now, let's say instead, turkey is officially banned; no more big basted bird on the traditional Thanksgiving Day table. Their cultural heritage is now being infringed upon, and that's when they begin to get an idea as to the challenge before us.

Non-combative international diplomacy will continue to emphasize that conservation is in the best interests of Japan and all other Asian countries where seafood consumption has been a long-established foundation of their diets. Both sustainability of the species and their industrial economy will depend on long-term planning, initiated by some pressing and game-changing short term measures. Investing in improved, ecologically-sound aquaculture techniques could be the quid pro quo that could reinvent their commercial fishing industry before it collapses from a loss of species - a disastrous result which neither benefits mankind or the planet.

Read about Kesennuma in the
SharkDivers' post on the subject.
Da Shark's post on the subject.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Great White Shark: San Diego sighting adds one more juvenile to population

This past Thursday, in San Diego, California, a 5-foot juvenile great white shark was reported by two scuba divers at around 500 yards off shore of La Jolla Cove in about 30 feet of water. Lifeguards briefly closed the beach while they cruised the area but soon reopened the beach, issuing a precaution to swimmers and leaving it at that. The local press reported the sighting without any overwrought hysteria and moved on to their next sound bite.

Chock up one for common sense.

Frankly, it does my heart good to hear of these sightings. With each juvenile seen, we know there is one more shark to add to the white shark's precarious population; one more shark that can, in 10 years, reproduce and, as Matt Hooper said, "make little sharks." Juvenile white sharks do not pose a substantial threat to humans as they are fixated on fish as menu items. It won't be until they reach maturity that they graduate to pennipeds (seals and sea lions) and the possibility of a surfer or swimmer being mistaken for a seal could occur, and has occurred.

But why off of warm Southern California? Juveniles have been sighted from Malibu to San Diego. There are deep canyons that run along the coastline in which juvenile white sharks can comfortably cruise, feeding on fish, while adults have generally taken up their migration patterns that often bring them to areas of seal or sea lion concentrations, like the Farallon Islands off San Francisco and Isla Guadalupe far off the Baja coast.

A recent report from the Shark Research Committee, a California non-profit headed by well-known shark behaviorist Ralph Collier, cited 7 unprovoked shark attacks along the Pacific Coast in 2010; 5 in California waters and 2 off the Oregon coast. Only one attack produced a fatality. Of interest were the activities the people were involved in at the time of the incidents: 3 surfing, 2 kayaking, 1 paddle-boarding, and 1 boogie-boarding. All surface activities, all included an elongated shape with limbs or paddles in the water. When you add in the right conditions of low visibility or other possible attractants like heavy splashing or nearby pinnipeds, all lend themselves to the classic scenario of mistaken identity as the white shark executes its typical single-bite ambush technique which it uses on an unsuspecting seal or sea lion (although not definitively confirmed, the white shark was suspected in all seven incidents). The attacks also took place in the late summer/early fall. This is when many adult great whites are on the move, returning from their mid-Pacific migration, back to their coastal hangouts.

Given the image that is generally served up by the media, I don't expect the general public to rejoice with every sighting of a great white shark along the California coast. But it's good to know that the circle of life is still taking place for these threatened ocean predators who play such an important role in balancing the marine ecosystem. Hopefully, the juvenile white shark seen off La Jolla Cove will not encounter poachers and live to carry on the species.

Read about the white shark sighting in San Diego.
Read about the Shark Research Committee

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Weak Hook Controversy: can NOAA recommendation save bluefin tuna in the Gulf?

Following the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there was understandable concern for a variety of species that inhabit the area, particularly those whose numbers were fragile and in decline to begin with. The Atlantic bluefin tuna was one such example, not only because its number worldwide are perilously low but because it is the Gulf of Mexico where the Western Atlantic bluefins go to spawn from March to June.

Pelagic longlining (PLL), one of commercial fishing's most indiscriminate methods, also occurs in the Gulf and with some scientists saying that as much as 20% of juvenile Atlantic bluefin tuna population was killed by the oil spill, many organizations are seeking to have the spawning grounds placed off limits to all PLL fishing during the spawning season. Their position is that, with a perilous population already weakened by the direct effects of the oil spill, to allow longlining to take place would spell disaster.

Equally as tragic is the fact that the focus of the longliners in the Gulf is not bluefin tuna. They are after the smaller yellowfin tuna, swordfish, and other species - making the bluefin merely accidental bycatch. Is it possible for the large and powerful bluefin tuna to be released if caught? Apparently not. There is a high mortality rate because the elevated levels of stress when caught, combined with the animals high metabolism and the warm waters of the Gulf, often prove fatal before any chance of release could take place.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has, to date, recommended that PLL boats use what are called "weak hooks." These are large hooks that are constructed with a smaller diameter wire so that a large and powerful fish like a bluefin tuna will have a fighting chance because the hook will bend, allowing the fish to release itself.

According to the results of field tests with participating longliners from 2008 to 2010, the NOAA Fisheries Service "found a statistically significant reduction in the catch of bluefin tuna of 56%, but no statistically significant difference in the catch of yellowfin tuna, swordfish, dolphin fish, or escolar on weak hooks compared to traditional hooks."

NOAA is considering making the use of weak hooks mandatory for the Gulf PPL fleet, but this has not necessarily won favor with many conservation groups concerned about the overall declining population of bluefin tuna and who have been demanding greater action on the part of ICCAT, the international body that basically regulates the tuna industry but which has continued to set annual catch levels that far exceeds levels recommended by even their own scientific panels.

Additionally, while some Atlantic Bluefin tuna would be spared by the use of weak hooks, there are countless other animals, from sharks to turtles to other unwanted bycatch, that would be needlessly killed just by virtue of the very nature of the longline technique itself.

As the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) describes it, "The pelagic longline fishery has a long history of deadly interactions with imperiled species. The weak-hook proposal acts as a stopgap measure to allow longline fishing to continue in spite of strict limits on bluefin tuna catch. Closing western Atlantic bluefin tuna breeding grounds during spawning season will not only afford bluefin tuna a greater chance to recover, but will also build a healthy ecosystem by protecting other bycatch species such as sharks, sea turtles and billfish."

CBD is currently waging a campaign through their own efforts and that of a email letter drive to Division Chief Margo Schulze-Haugen of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to have NOAA consider the closure. If you would like to add your voice, click here.

Read NOAA's
bulletin on weak hooks.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Atlas of Global Conservation: an in-depth look that is accessible to all

Conservation is a broad, multi-faceted issue and its implementation, or lack of, goes beyond the saving of a particular species or ecosystem. There are social and economic implications that also come into play, making it much more than simply a call to "save the sharks" or "save the rainforest".

I have had the pleasure of being approached by publishers and distributors to do reviews of nature or conservation books and DVDs, but one caught my attention on my own that methodically lays out the varied aspects of conservation in a way that is detailed yet easy for even the most uninitiated on the subject to understand. The Atlas of Global Conservation, prepared by The Nature Conservancy and authored by experts in the field, takes on the expansive topic of conservation by leading the reader through its many components step-by-step, leading towards actions being taken, solutions, and what lies ahead.

First, the book breaks it all down: global eco-regions; habitats like forests, grasslands, coastal and coral reef marine habitats and more; then the whole range of species including plants, mammals, freshwater and marine creatures, reptiles and amphibians, and others. Each are portrayed globally, well-defined on maps that show concentrations and distribution.

Then the book turns to the issues that are at work which brought about the need for conservation in the first place: the human population, consumption, climate change, habitat loss through development, and so on. When individually identified and illustrated globally, it is staggering to see the impact that one species, mankind, is having on the planet.

But this is not a doomsday volume. The Atlas of Global Conservation identifies where and how action is being taken, from land and marine protected areas to economic-based solutions that benefit both developing societies and industrial nations. The book identifies the larger issues of international cooperation while also noting the specific efforts being done by individuals and groups to restore wetlands, forests, and coral reefs.

"In 528 AD, the Roman emperor Justinian declared that his empire's rivers, streams, and surrounding lands should be protected, because, together with the air, running water, the sea and seashore, they were 'common to all mankind.' It was a novel idea at the time: that the state should help protect nature as opposed to private property."

It may have taken fifteen hundred years to bring us to where we are today, but we have always known deep down that conservation needed to be part of our existence, in harmony with our personal aspirations and accomplishments. The Atlas of Global Conservation neatly shows any one, regardless of their current knowledge on the subject, just where we are, what we are faced with, and perhaps most importantly, what we can do about it.
Available at

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guam's Dwindling Shark Population: new study supports need for protective legislation

Late last month, I ran a post on the efforts in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to initiate anti-shark fin legislation. Just a few days later, The Commonwealth of the Northern Marina Islands (CNMI) succeeded in passing the legislation, signed by Governor Fitial, and attention turned to Guam.

A public hearing was held this past Tuesday in Guam and opposition leaders, mainly in the form of fisherman represented by the Fishermen's Cooperative Association of Guam, made their case that the legislation was punitive to the fishermen and unnecessary. The fishermen take the position that there are more sharks in Guam than ever before and in no signs of disappearing.

Unfortunately, that position was challenged by the results of a scientific study conducted over a 12-month period that most decidedly showed that the number of sharks in Guam are at dangerously low levels compared to other nearby areas. By placing baited remote underwater video stations (BRUVs) at 75 different locations, only 10 sharks (mostly black tip reef sharks) were counted, which equates to 0.13 sharks per hour of footage according to Dr. Jenny McIlwain in her sworn testimony at the hearing.

Just 12 miles south of Guam, at Galvez Bank, 22 sharks were recorded - equating to 10 times the Guam average. Dr. McIlwain also pointed out that when comparing studies using the same techniques in Australia in areas where sharks were heavily commercially fished, Guam's numbers were still 4 times less.

The study was a joint venture of the Universities of Guam and Western Australia, and was funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Initiative. Stefanie Brendl of WildAid, in written testimony, stressed the importance of Guam's passage of this legislation. It represents a tropical Pacific movement to protect sharks that started in Hawaii. With more island nations taking action to prohibit shark finning in local waters, combined with international efforts, the shark finning industry - legal or otherwise - will be constantly on the move and finding fewer and fewer safe harbors to operate from.

Before final passage of the legislation, the Guam government might make some concessions to those fishermen who truly subsist from a limited shark catch. But given the scientific evidence presented at the hearing, it is difficult to conceive of any acceptable catch level that would not push the last remaining sharks of Guam toward extinction.
Read about the public hearing in the Marianas Variety.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rally 'Round the Rodent: small mammals are ecological foundation

When one thinks of animals and conservation, a range of iconic images come to mind: whales, sharks, polar bears, wolves. These tend to be larger species and, while they certainly deserve our attention, there is a large group of land-based animals that also deserve protection. Rodents.

Rodents, you say? Are we talking rats here? Protect the rat, save the rat? Well, yes and no. Of course, when one thinks of rodents, rats and mice and other pests that have thrived because of man's presence, particularly in our urban areas, come to mind. And they have been a problem through destruction of stored seeds and grains or through transmission of disease. However, rodents serve an important ecological role and, in so doing, deserve a measure of protection as much as any other land animal.

Of the approximate 4,000 species of mammals on the planet, about 1,500 fall into the rodentia family, primarily identified by having a single pair of incisors - front teeth that require continually
being worn down through gnawing on hard surfaces. In fact, that's where the name comes from, "gnawing animal." In addition to rats and mice, rodents also include squirrels, beavers, porcupines, prairie dogs, and many more. In fact there is an incredible range of rodents in tropical and jungle environments from tiny little critters up to 110-pound capybaras found in South America.

Rodents constitute some of the earliest prehistoric mammals. While dinosaurs were stomping their way into eventual oblivion, as far back as the Paleocene era, rodents were scurrying about their feet. Actually, there were some incredibly large rodents in prehistoric times, some as large as a bear. However, those toothy behemoths, along with other over-sized animals like dinosaurs, couldn't survive the radical climatic changes that the earth has gone through, from ice ages to meteors.

Today, while rodents in developed countries can be pests, causing billions of dollars in crop losses or pest control expenses, in many parts of the world they provide food and fur for local or tribal populations. And in the big scheme of things, they are a major food source for a variety of other animals. Just like with the predator-prey pyramid for marine species wherein plankton and small bait fish are highly reproductive to balance out the fact that they also are prey to a wide range of other animals, rodents serve as a cornerstone and key foundation for the chain of life in the terrestrial world.

Conservation International recognizes the significance of the rodent in a properly maintained ecology. With a little humor, they are making the case that rodents deserve our understanding and protection. They have a Facebook page designed for visitors to choose a favorite rodent for Valentine's Day. Here's Conservation International's take on why rodents deserve something more that a trap baited with cheese:

"We share our planet with millions of incredible species.

Just consider the bright color of spring flowers, the morning calls of migratory birds, or the snow-covered plumage of emperor penguins. We're lucky to live in a world where these creatures exist.

At Conservation International (CI), we've been working since our founding to protect and preserve species around the world. And with Feb. 14 quickly approaching, I hope you'll join me in sending a valentine — to some amazing species of rodents.

Rodents? Amazing? Yes, amazing. Sure, they're sometimes household pests. But they underpin the ecosystems that provide us with clean air and water, regulate our climate, and give us medicines.

And in many cultures, species play an important role — yes, even rodents. The Chinese zodiac has not one but two rodent representatives (the rabbit and the rat). And in the U.S. and Canada, today is Groundhog Day, a quirky holiday that, folklore says, determines how long the continent will remain under a winter chill.

Some rodents are even kind of cute.

Yet around the world, on land and at sea, species like rodents are in trouble. It's estimated that one species goes extinct, on average, every 20 minutes. Human activity, such as habitat destruction and pollution, is largely responsible. And for every species of plant or animal that disappears, we forever lose the unique and sometimes critical benefits that people receive.

How can you get involved in protecting species like these? Join us in celebrating rodents this Valentine's Day — and help us spread the word that people need nature to thrive.

Visit CI's Facebook fan page and click on 'Vote Now' to vote for your favorite rodent:

You can also visit
Crowdrise, an online fundraising site that makes it easy for you, your friends, and your family to donate small amounts of money to CI if you'd like. Each of our four rodents has its own Crowdrise page, so you can vote for your favorite not just with a click, but with your wallet!

The rodent with the most votes and dollars raised by Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, will be named the most loved rodent (as voted by CI supporters). So this Groundhog Day, send a valentine to a furry creature. Vote for your favorite rodents on CI's Facebook fan page and on Crowdrise."

Read more about rodents from UCMP.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Australia's Grey Nurse Sharks: NSW anglers under new restrictions to protect sharks

In New South Wales, Australia, sportfisherman who fish the waters off Fish Rock and Green Island, in the southeast corner of the continent, west of Melbourne, are having to adapt to new fishing techniques and restrictions imposed by the NSW Primary Industries Ministry. The rules were put in place to help protect the grey nurse shark, also known as the sand tiger shark. Congregating in large numbers, these sharks were being accidentally hooked because of the baiting techniques being used.

The fishermen were using bait and wire line, or trace, to fish right off the island's rocky shoreline. Unfortunately, with grey nurse sharks being the typically bottom-feeding scavengers that they are, a baited hook became a tempting target.

“Recently published research suggests that grey nurse sharks are being accidentally hooked in the vicinity of Fish Rock and supports the requirement for increased protection at this site," said Steve Whan, NSW Primary Industries Minister. "Other research being conducted by Industry & Investment NSW at Fish Rock has shown that grey nurse sharks will readily take a range of commonly used baits suggesting the existing rules are unlikely to protect the species from accidental hooking.”

A benign but threatening-looking shark
Grey nurse sharks are not considered a particularly dangerous shark, even though they can grow to be up to 14 feet in length and carry a rather awesome mouthful of long, dagger-like teeth designed for snagging and holding on to fish that they catch with a quick side-to-side snap of their heads. Because of that array of dental armament combined with a rather mild temperament, they have become a popular shark in public aquariums.

When I was a dive team leader at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, I had the opportunity to spend time with three or four grey nurse sharks (called sand tigers in the U.S.).
They were very curious sharks and so, if I was filming, I would have a safety diver behind me with a short pole to shoo away any shark that got a bit too curious. Other times, divers would be in the shark exhibit to clean and another diver would always be watching his or her dive buddy's back. It was a prudent precaution, but not because the sand tigers looked at any of us as a potential meal. It was more a case of curiosity and a bit of a territorial attitude that they exhibited. In fact, it was always a point of concern with the staff, when introducing a new shark or other animal into the exhibit, that the sand tigers might pick on the new arrival. Like West Side Story, the gang of "sharks" in Long Beach were protecting their turf.

I always enjoyed diving with the Aquarium's sand tiger/grey nurse sharks, in addition to the blacktip reef sharks and zebra sharks also on display. But with the sand tigers, you always maintained a careful eye on where they were.

Incremental but important steps
Back in New South Wales, sportfishermen are still allowed to fish at Green Island and Fish Rock, but they must confine their fishing techniques to using artificial flies or lures - devices that seem to not interest the nurse sharks there. Commercial fishing was not affected by the new regulations as they operate further offshore and away from the nurse shark aggregations. The New South Wales government made a sensible incremental step, recognizing the desire of locals anglers to have fishing access while at the same time acknowledging that something needed to be done to avoid needlessly killing the grey nurse sharks there.

Progress can be measured in big steps, like the various anti-shark fin legislative proposals that have passed or are close to passing in several countries. And it can be measured in small steps, like those that are protecting Australia's grey nurse shark.

Read about New South Wales' grey nurse sharks in The Coffs Coast Advocate.